Patriotism and Education

Most definitions of patriotism include the concept of love for and loyalty towards one’s home nation. Despite the fact that patriotism is commonly associated with positive feelings such as unity, unselfishness, and love, it can be argued that patriotism is an unnatural sentiment that creates bias, and is a major cause of war. Furthermore, efforts to include patriotism in schools at any level are essentially indoctrination, not education.

Patriotism as Love of Fellow Citizens

Patriotism implies expressing love for one’s fellow citizens. Loving other people makes sense, and is surely beneficial for society as a whole. Such love arises naturally for individuals one comes in contact with and works and plays with. A neighborhood, a workplace, a county, a prefecture, a nation and all of humanity benefit from loving, cooperative and altruistic behavior. Patriotism, however, extols the virtues of targeting a particular group of individuals to love. With what logic—and to whose benefit—is it to focus almost exclusively on national unity as opposed to community, state, or global unity?

Citizens of a nation are largely strangers. Nations contain a huge number of individuals with diverse ideas and ways of thinking. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.”1 Thus, a nation is not homogenous.

Patriots of some nations, like Japan, might point to kinship, claiming Japan is a “racially pure” and hence family in one sense of the word. However, tracing ancestry back just a few more generations, Japanese can find their supposed family is merely part of a larger family, of Koreans, Chinese, Portuguese, and innumerable other races. Keep tracing ancestry and we arrive in Africa and the birth of the human species. There is no logical or biological reason to limit the notion of family to those within national borders. The broader and profounder concept of family embraces all of humanity, if not all living creatures.

If a person can love hundreds of millions of strangers as patriotism implies, surely it would be better advised to spread that affection and commitment to all of humanity. With patriotism, the feelings of love and unity are always narrowly focused on those within national borders.

Patriotism and Identity

One rationale for patriotism is that humans need to identify with greater entities and ideals, and internationalism doesn’t satisfy that need. Michael W. McConnell is an academic, author, and defender of patriotism. In his essay “Don’t Neglect the Little Platoons,” he writes, “Humanity at large—what we share with other humans as rational beings—is too abstract to be a strong focus for the affections.2 Since “the world” has never been the locus of citizenship, a child who is taught to be a “citizen of the world” is taught to be a citizen of an abstraction.”

McConnell, however, fails to acknowledge that to be a citizen of a nation is likewise to be a citizen of an abstraction, with the only concrete evidence of national membership being man-made papers such as passports. Citizens of a nation are artificial constructs; looking at a person, there is no way to know her citizenship. In the case of a “world citizen,” however, individuals are members of a natural entity, the earth, and humanity always absolutely identifiable.

Patriotism as Loyalty to National Government

Wikipedia notes that patriots should be willing to sacrifice even their own lives for the state. Loyalty means to remain faithful despite circumstances. It is oxymoronic at best, and Orwellian doublespeak to cynics, to suggest that autonomous independent-thinking citizens of a so-called free, democratic society should maintain “unswerving allegiance” to its national government. “Unswerving allegiance” is amounts to a certain amount of bias and blindness, for the sake of unity narrowly focused within national borders, especially in times of war. In fact, wars rely on the loyalty of its citizens. Without this loyalty, it’s hard to imagine soldiers killing and risking their lives when their governments demand the bombs start falling.

The Education Connection

John Taylor Gatto is an educator and two-time winner of the New York state Teacher of the Year award. He traces the history of compulsory schooling to Prussia.

“After Napoleon’s army defeated Prussia (Germany) at the battle of Jena in 1806, Fichte (the Prussian philosopher) declared, ‘Education should provide the means to destroy free will.’ Look what Napoleon had done by banishing sentiment in the interests of nationalism. Through forced schooling, everyone would learn that “work makes free,” and working for the State, even laying down one’s life to its commands, was the greatest freedom of all. Here in the genius of semantic redefinition lay the power to cloud men’s minds…”

Thus, Prussia laid the foundations for the illusion that the state as a powerful father figure, necessarily worthy of the loyalty of its citizens. From its inception, public school education was not envisioned as a way to cultivate the human spirit, but as a way to make the individual loyal to his or her nation. Gatto describes the ways public schools are designed to break an individual’s independence, by making the pupil obey the dictates of bells and follow a fragmented curriculum, as well as having his or her worth defined—judged—externally via grades. Youth who don’t conform to the dictates of the system get branded rebellious, receive poor grades, or simply flunk out. Beyond these systematic means of bending the student’s will to the demands of the state, there are overt expressions of love which most schoolchildren the world over are expected to express. In the United States, a supposed champion of freedom and critical thinking, children routinely recite, “”I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Now, few even question whether having school age children promise their loyalty to the national government has a place in public schools. In Examining the Pledge of Allegiance, Leisa Martin discusses the history of the pledge, provides suggestions for activities, and briefly mentions a couple of controversies regarding it, but never raises the point of whether this sort of indoctrination belongs in schools at all, even in her paragraph about “different perspectives” (which contains a mere half-sentence criticism about the phrase “liberty and justice for all followed by lengthy praise for the pledge, including a Bellamy quote).3 In appendix C she mentions that in 1925 thirty-five Mennonite children refused to salute the flag because “they felt taking up arms and taking other peoples’ lives to defend the U.S. was against their religious beliefs,” but Martin’s phrasing “to defend the U.S.” is obfuscation and should be phrased “to fight in wars,” especially since American soldiers have fought only on foreign soil for well over 100 years. Martin also notes, but doesn’t expand upon, the fact that originally the pledge was said with a stiff arm militaristic salute, not unlike the Nazi salute. Schools dropped the salute during the second World War.

Martin does, however, offer some facts, troubling to critics of the Pledge. Since 911, seventeen U.S. states have enacted new pledge laws, and 35 states mandated that the Pledge be recited daily during school. Unfortunately, this clinging to old ways of patriotism and indoctrination are not limited to the United States. Japan has recently made similar moves for its own patriotic expressions.

In Japan, where patriotism had been discouraged in the years following World War II, pressure is building to make school children more patriotic. In August 1999, a law instituted the Hinomaru rising sun flag as the official flag of Japan and the “Kimigayo”, (“His Majesty’s Reign”) as the official national anthem. Both were and are potent symbols of Japan’s militarization and invasions of neighboring countries prior to World War II. Moreover, Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education, which had called for the “nurturing of truth, peace, and justice” was revised. Then prime minister Shinzo Abe and his allies passed a bill that demanded schools instill “a love of one’s country” in children. Some critics of the new law saw shades of an 1890 edict that decreed children must recite stanzas of patriotic praise before the portrait of the Emperor. That very year a Hiroshima principle who was caught in a controversy involving teachers who refused to stand for the Kimigayo during school ceremonies, and pressure from the school board who demanded they stand, committed suicide.

In particular, Tokyo teachers have suffered the brunt of punishments against teachers who refuse to stand. Tokyo Governor Ishihara, who has suggested Japan should bomb North Korea and calls Japan’s peace constitution “nonsense”, has pressed school boards to force teachers to stand. Those who refuse to stand have been suspended without pay, frequently transferred to schools far away from their homes, not allowed home-room duties, and even abused physically and verbally by students. One teacher in particular, Kimiko Nezu, has taken the school board to court over the suspensions, and won. Undaunted, the board has appealed to the Japanese supreme court. A verdict is expected in 2010.

Few educators would deny the value of autonomy and independent thinking, yet few question why students and teachers should be expected or forced to recite their allegiance to the state. Of course, the problem is much deeper than any single act of indoctrination. More important are the ways people carve up the world into “us” and “them”; the ways people learn to view international problems through the lens of their cultural and national identities; the extent young adults feel compelled to conform to the dominant culture of their society; and the tendency for young men and women to agree to become soldiers who follow orders and may have to kill strangers on the order of their commander. Educators have a responsibility to deeply consider these issues and consider deeply the meaning and implications of patriotism.

  1. Zinn, H. 1980. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial. []
  2. McConnell, M. 1996. “Don’t Neglect the Little Platoons” in For Love of Country. Boston: Beacon Press. []
  3. Martin, L. 2008. Examining the Pledge of Allegiance. Social Studies. Washington DC: Heldref Publications. []

John Spiri teaches at Tokyo University of Agriculture and technology. He can be reached at: johnspiri@gmail.com. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Josie Michel-Brüning said on June 6th, 2009 at 9:09am #

    Yes, dear John Spiri, you are perfectly right. One can only hope your word would be spread, especially among young people going to be recruted for war.

  2. Erroll said on June 6th, 2009 at 12:21pm #

    An excellent companion piece to this well written article would be a 2007 book entitled Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism In America’s Schools which is edited by Joel Westheimer. In it are essays such as Patriotism Is a Bad Idea at a Dangerous Time by Robert Jensen and Patriotism Makes Kids Stupid by Bill Bigelow.

  3. bozh said on June 6th, 2009 at 1:27pm #

    grading people- and children especially- has been for a decade or so one of my own pet peeves.
    and not, folks, because i had finished last in my class and actually dropped after three yrs of schooling.

    and i quit ‘educcation’ not because i knew what was up but because i had been a near-total toady. I never got cured; but do now know what is up.

    but it is not just schooling that makes slaves out of children but also clero-political discourse as well as advertising/entertainment industry, and media ‘reports’.
    just 001% of the people can control mns. Or one cld say that -when hierarchy of the rulers is taken into account- 001% of the 001% can easily lead a nation of 20 mn to war let alone get people’s blessing for committing lesser iniquities tnx.

  4. Melissa said on June 6th, 2009 at 2:38pm #

    Thank you for this article . . . I feel that it touches well on the underlying “force” (mandatory schooling with centralized, national curriculum) that sucks moral autonomy and courage out of us. I am certain that the souls of the U.S. population would be much more whole and inclined to defend themselves against the obvious tyranny if we weren’t taught to be obedient and wait for direction from an established “authority”. Well intentioned people and true believers have destroyed education in favor of schooling and social management.

    bozh,
    what does “i had been a near-total toady” mean? I am inclined to think it means that you didn’t “take” to the homogenization of schooling so well . . . ? Maybe that’s why I search for you posts, and tend to find them so sane. Peace, man.

  5. Jim said on June 6th, 2009 at 3:33pm #

    Funny how you would write such things while living abroad.

  6. bozh said on June 6th, 2009 at 3:46pm #

    melissa, i almost bypassed your post. By using the word “toad” i was deliberately vague or may be lazy to go on and elucidate it. I was also thinking that nobody wld understand me even if wld enumerate some of my traits.
    i’ll be brave and enumerate them: i had been intensely/sickly bashful or ashamed of myself since i cld remember and to the degree that i cldn’t look people in the eye. I did not ever talk to anyone until i was maybe 15 yrs of age. I never talked to my mom or dad and dad and mom never talked to me.
    even today at age 77 i can’t say no to anyone when it comes to please people at my own expense.
    or if i say no to a request i go thru much fear. Dozens and dozens of people wld put me dwn and i took it silently only to have anxiety attacks later which may last a life time because of such emotional abuse.
    at times i wld go thru intense rage when i wld remember an insult. And so on. I think you get the picture.
    i have been on fluvoxamine for the last few yrs and, lo and behold, it reduces my fright/rage by at least 80% during the day. At night time i do go thru some strong anxiety attacks but not as strong as before i began using fluvoxmine. tnx for your inquiry!
    bozhidar balkas vancouver
    yet i remember also abusing a few people

  7. Erroll said on June 6th, 2009 at 6:52pm #

    Many liberals will feel that the best way to display their patriotism will be to challenge the policies of their government both domestically and regarding foreign policy. But for some bizarre reason this logical rationale does not seem to extend, at least for many liberals, to q

  8. Erroll said on June 6th, 2009 at 7:12pm #

    I do not know what happened to the above comment [a conspiracy theory perhaps?] but I will attempt to finish what I had written. As I was attempting to say, liberals will challenge almost anything the government says, especially a government run by neoconservatives, but for some bizarre reason that questioning does not extend to what the Bush administration has claimed happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The liberal rationale appears to be that even though Bush had lied concerning just about everything, e.g. Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the deficit, the outing of Valerie Plame, prescription drug reform, oil drilling in Alaska, terrorist threats, etc. , Bush and Cheney had suddenly decided to be honest with the American public concerning the attacks of 9/11. It would seem that the issue of patriotism is not supposed to extend to questioning the activities of the government on one of the most heinous days that the United States has ever experienced.

    One remembers how Charlie Sheen was ripped apart by that liberal icon Bill Maher when Sheen pointed out, among other things, the illogical reasoning behind the Bush claim that 19 [alleged] crazed Arabs from the Middle East were somehow able to overpower the flight crews along with all the passengers on four airplanes, not with Uzi sub machine guns or pistols or machetes or blow torches, but with, of all things, box cutters. But to dare to dissent from the propaganda put forth by the Bush administration is to be practically deemed, if not unpatriotic, then most certainly insane, as stated, not from the quasi fascists of Fox “News” but rather incredibly from that revered icon of the left, Noam Chomsky. So much for the idea ofd dissent being alive and well in the land of the free.

  9. Russell Olausen said on June 6th, 2009 at 10:45pm #

    I wonder why nobody talks of the educational value of gambling.The hit below the belt,the debt must be paid, the love of the game ,the blind ump, take one for the team; patriotic nationalists eat this up.The Hail Mary redeams a game full of the seven deadly sins.All in and danm good indoc and not bad at getting money into the right hands.Come on you researchers, make a few bets and tell us how you feel. Oh ya pump up a few stocks, loose them on the peons for some post secondary research.Your out of the game if you kick dirt.

  10. Concrete man said on June 7th, 2009 at 4:49am #

    The problem is the Jews have relied on a double standard throughout the last two thousand years, your patriotism is bad but our right to be racist nationalists cannot be questioned. Of course, patriotism, or nationalism, can go too far, but the basic problem of our day is the Zionist Power Configuration and its stranglehold on our political, economic, and cultural institutions.

  11. john spiri said on June 7th, 2009 at 6:08am #

    Thanks all for your comments. Erroll, I am familiar with Derrick Jensen’s writing, like it very much, and have been influenced by it. I certainly would like to see the book you mention. bozh, I agree with you–but don’t forget parents. Jim, funny I would write *what* while living overseas? About the situation in Japan where I have 13 years experience, or America where I lived for over 30 years? Concrete man, identifying the “Zionists” as “the problem” is contrary to the point of the essay. And, from my point of view, it’s not a matter of patriotism or nationalism “going to far”–the existence of these feelings is artificial, divisive, limiting, and lead to bias, blindness and war. Josie, if only I could get Fox news to publish my piece! Their readers are who I’d love to see read it (not that it’d do any good)…